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21 October 2022

The battle of the Dylanologists

As Bob Dylan tours the UK, his work is being embraced and interrogated by younger critics impatient with the “white male genius” myth.

By Fergal Kinney

“Someday everything’s gonna be different,” sang the 81-year-old Bob Dylan last night (20 October) at the 2,000-capacity Palladium theatre in London, “when I paint my masterpiece.”

The 1971 song “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has endured across decades, serving as a portent that the artist’s best work lies in the future. Two years ago its promise seemed to have been fulfilled for many fans and critics. Rough and Rowdy Ways, which Dylan has started touring this week for the first time in the UK, was met with acclaim – and surprise – on its 2020 release. The consensus is that the album is among his finest works. Its smoky, sparsely arranged songs play with American mythology and the singer’s own slippery role within it. “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods,” he growled last night, performing the album’s opening track, “and I contain multitudes.”

Over the last few years, though, a battle has taken place among the fans and scholars – collectively known as Dylanologists – who devote their time to unpicking those multitudes. As 20th-century pop culture becomes 21st-century academia (over 100 universities in the United States offer courses on Dylan), younger critics are transforming how the songwriter’s history is perceived.

“I really noticed that a female voice was missing,” Laura Tenschert, 37, a German academic living in east London, says. After a few years broadcasting a Dylan show on Resonance FM, the independent London station, during lockdown Tenschert began a podcast called Definitely Dylan. The episodes are tightly authored audio essays closer to creative non-fiction than the nerdy speculation that has traditionally defined the study. “I saw an opportunity for myself to be a translator between the old guard,” she says, “because I can speak to them and know what they’ve been thinking for decades, and reach younger people, people who have previously been put off by the conversation and the people having the conversation.”

Much of the new Dylanology involves arguing for a wider conception of history. “With a lot of male Dylan writers there is this idea of him as a singular white male genius,” explains Tenschert. “I do believe that he’s a genius, but that isn’t how creativity works and that isn’t how interpersonal relationships work.”

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Rebecca Slaman, a New York-based writer and expert on fandom, tells me that younger Dylan fans are “mainly queer, more racially and gender diverse, and present their love of Dylan in a different fashion. Like young people often do, they say things that offend the older generations. It’s a testament to Dylan that his art has been adopted by a new generation that has almost no cultural connection to him.”

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As well as the democratising medium of podcasting, there are heated Reddit discussions and meme-y Twitter accounts, including Bob Dylan Smiling (such is the phenomenon’s scarcity) and Men Explain Dylan To Me (such is its frequency). The Jokermen podcast – started two years ago by its affable and acerbic American hosts Ian Grant and Evan Laffer, both around the age of 30 – delights in rejecting Dylanology’s cult of reverence, and reaches a wide audience with its internet-y deep dives into Dylan’s back catalogue.

As the audience filed into the Palladium they were required to pack their phones away into sealed pouches, which were electronically reopened by staff on exit. For at least the last two decades Dylan’s performances have involved audience guessing games over wildly re-interpreted cuts from his back catalogue. Last night, however, Dylan primarily performed material from the new album, and the often terse relationship between the songwriter and his audience felt healthier than it has in a generation.

Performers of Dylan’s vintage tend to be padded with a travelling circus of accompanying musicians, but with just a four-piece band there was nowhere for him to hide. His phlegmatic wheeze – one of the most divisive but enduring sounds in recorded music history – was captured by a close-up microphone. He barely spoke on stage, offering only a couple of hurried thank-yous and a reference to the wife of Joe Strummer, co-founder of the Clash, being in the audience (“We love Joe”). “Gotta Serve Somebody”, Dylan’s radical 1970s embrace of Christianity, was toughened up as a strident, impressionistic boogie. Dylan has always been a conduit for what the writer Greil Marcus termed “the old, weird America,” and into his ninth decade he plays with his own version of US song history.

Some of Dylan’s biographers, whose works Tenschert calls “disrespectful, sexist and sometimes racist”, have missed crucial parts of the songwriter’s story. Earlier this year a one-off vinyl edition of Dylan’s protest song “Blowin’ In The Wind” sold at auction for £1.5m. Yet within contemporary Dylanology enthusiasts are questioning the extent to which his political output should be uncritically praised. Last year the Dylan scholar Graley Herren compared the song “The Death Of Emmett Till” to more recent controversy around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. There were protests when the painting by Schutz, who is white, of the mutilated face of Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, was displayed at Whitney Museum, New York, in 2017.

Dylan’s turn away from protest music has long been understood as a singular male visionary following his muse towards more complex, surreal songwriting. Herren’s research suggests instead that it was instead a response to critiques from within the Civil Rights movement. Did Dylan, in fact, walk away out of respect, or perhaps intimidation? Dylanologists want black voices – so far hugely underrepresented in study of the singer – to uncover that history.

Earlier this year the Bob Dylan Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, opened. It houses over 100,000 artefacts donated by the singer, including master tapes, set lists, notebooks, films, photographs and letters. Only a fraction of the collection will be publicly exhibited. The emphasis is instead on private study and research. New voices will be able to tell new stories straight from the source.

As Dylan tours his strongest work in decades, this new cohort of academics and enthusiasts ensure his is a story that is far from over. “It’s a mistake assuming that there’s one right account of Dylan’s history,” says Tenschert, “when in fact it’s an evolving story.”

[See also: On Midnights, Taylor Swift sounds more herself than ever]

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